The Public and its Problems
The Public and its Problems is a 1927 book by American philosopher John Dewey. In his first major work on political philosophy, Dewey explores the viability and creation of a genuinely democratic society in the face of the major technological and social changes of the 20th century, and seeks to better define what both the 'public' and the 'state' constitutes, how they are created, and their major weaknesses in understanding and propagating its own interests and the public good. Dewey rejects a then popular notion of political technocracy as an alternative system of governing an increasingly complex society, but rather sees democracy as the most viable and sustainable means to achieving the public interest, albeit a flawed and routinely subverted one. He contends that democracy is an ethos and an ongoing project that requires constant public vigilance and engagement to be effective, rather than merely a set of institutional arrangements, an argument he would later expand upon most influentially in his essay Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us. The Public and its Problems is a major contribution on pragmatism in political philosophy and continued to promote discussion and debate long after its publication.
The Public and its Problems was Dewey's first major work concerned exclusively with political philosophy, though he had both commented and written on politics frequently for much of his career, and made forays into the subject as it related to education in Democracy and Education in 1916, and would go on to publish numerous works on the subject, including Individualism: Old and New (1930) and Liberalism and Social Action (1935) and Freedom and Culture (1939). Dewey was an ardent democrat who while still at university in 1888 had contended "Democracy and the one, ultimate, ethical ideal of humanity are to my mind synonymous."
Dewey was moved to write in defence of democracy in the wake of two widely read and influential works written by journalist Walter Lippmann in the 1920s which echoed a rising intellectual trend both in the United States and Europe that was critical of the potential for self-governing democratic societies. In the first, Public Opinion (1922), Lippman contends that public opinion suffers from two major problems - that regular citizens have insufficient access to or interest in the facts of their environment, and that what information they receive is heavily distorted by cognitive biases, manipulation by the media, inadequate expertise and cultural norms. Lippmann contends that citizens construct a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone's pseudo-environment is a fiction. Subsequently, because of the near impossibility of developing an adequately informed public that a democracy requires to make effective public policy in world of increasingly complex policy problems, Lippmann contends that a technocratic elite is better placed to work for the public interest without necessarily undermining the notion of consent of the governed. Lippmann expanded upon his critiques of democracy and the public as an illusory and often dangerous force in The Phantom Public (1925), contending famously that "the public must be put in its place...so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd." He dismisses the notion of the existence of "the public" as used in democratic theory, and advances again a notion that elites are the only force capable of effectively achieving something akin to the 'public interest' in practice.
Dewey saw Lippmann's work as "perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned" but felt compelled to come to the defence of democratic theory and to reject what he saw as argumentation on the part of Lippman that was particularly doctrinaire and absolutist in its judgements, and saw his own philosophical pragmatism as a means by which a more accurate and realistic conception of what the public and democracy was capable of it, and its limitations.
Dewey begins his argument by distinguishing between the "state," represented by elected lawmakers, and the "public," the diffuse, often incoherent body of citizens who elect the state. The public is called into being when ordinary citizens experience the negative externalities (or consequences) of exchanges beyond their control (such as market or governmental activities). A public then is made up of citizens whose common interest is focused on alleviating these negative externalities through legislation; in fact, Dewey argues that a public does not actually exist until a negative externality calls it into being.
Dewey asserts that this occurs when people perceive how consequences of indirect actions affect them collectively: “Indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences”. Hence, a public only develops when it has a reason and comes together around an issue of substantial or serious significance.
In the second half of The Public and its Problems, Dewey concedes to the arguments of adversaries of modern democracy (such as Walter Lippmann) by describing all the powerful forces at work that eclipse the public and prevent it from articulating its needs. For example, Dewey explains how special interests, powerful corporate capital, numbing and distracting entertainment, general selfishness, and the vagaries of public communication make effective public deliberation difficult.
Whereas Walter Lippmann believed that the public had little capacity to be a rational participant in democracy and was essentially nonexistent, Dewey held a more optimistic view of the public and its potential. Dewey did not call for an abandonment of the public; rather, he hoped the public would regain a sense of self. The solution to this, he writes, is improved communication. Only then, with communication, will the public find itself and become a cohesive group.
In addition to Dewey's proposition that the public cannot find itself because there are too many publics, he also blames the distractions of modern society. He points out that even in the past, the public has had other concerns than politics: "Political concerns have, of course, always had strong rivals". In discussing the distractions of the past, Dewey explains that those distractions are far more prevalent and bountiful in today's society and citing technology as the main perpetrator.
He uses examples of "the movie, cheap reading matter and [the] motor car as drawing peoples' attention away from politics. These technologies, Dewey explains, are far more desirable topics of discussion for the everyday person than the latest political news. Unfortunately, Dewey does not give a solution to the problem of technology taking away from interest in political affairs. However, Dewey does have hopes that society can someday use its technology to improve communication and thus improve public interest in politics.
Furthermore, he asserts that local community is where democracy must happen so that people can become active and express issues of public concern. In this way, the local community can become the “Great Community.” He writes, “Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless…Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community”.
- Rogers, Melvin L. (2010-04-21). "Introduction: Revisiting The Public and Its Problems". Contemporary Pragmatism. 7 (1): 1–7. doi:10.1163/18758185-90000152. ISSN 1875-8185.
- Early Works, 1:128 (Southern Illinois University Press) op cited in Douglas R. Anderson, AAR, The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 61, No. 2 (1993), p. 383
- Lippmann, Walter (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. p. 55.
- Lippmann, Walter (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. p. 18.
- Lippmann, Walter (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
- Lippmann, Walter (1925). The Phantom Public. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. p. 145.
- Lippmann, Walter (1925). The Phantom Public. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. p. 198-99
- Westbrook, Robert (1991). John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 294. ISBN 0801481112.
- Dewey, 126.
- Dewey, 137.
- Dewey, 142.
- Asen, Robert. "The Multiple Mr. Dewey: Multiple Publics and Permeable Borders in John Dewey's Theory of the Public Sphere." Argumentation and Advocacy 39 (2003).
- Bybee, Carl. "Can Democracy Survive in the Post-Factual Age?" Journalism and Communication Monographs 1:1 (Spring 1999): 29-62
- Dewey, John. (1927). The Public and its Problems. New York: Holt.